The first national conference on farmer groups with Natural England was a ‘swell’ event. (Updated Jan 2022 as Defra commit more funding to Enviro Land Management schemes)
The room was awash with the exchange of ideas. Chests swelling with pride as farmers restored stone curlews to farmland, yellowhammers to hedgerows, brown trout to brooks, pollinators to headlands. All while getting together over beers in their local pubs to talk habitat for wildlife.
Applause was noticeably loud for those farmers, land managers, facilitators who had picked up the baton and run with it for wildlife. Nope, not just ‘quarry’ species some might have an specific interest in, but species they wanted on their land, to be proud of. Many of which also happen to be of biodiversity concern.
Tipping for wildlife
Sir John, who triggered the idea of landscape scale conservation (Making Space for Nature), wrote on a slide that he found ‘the Farmer Clusters initiative so brilliant’ for moving in the right direction towards land sharing for people and nature.
Farmer clusters represent a tipping point towards the positive – ‘a consortium of the willing putting back more nature than is being taken out’.
Rob Shepherd (Hants farmer) told us about land managers taking back ‘ownership of conservation’s destiny’ during a deadpan delivery. ‘Don’t mention buzzards and badgers’ when getting farmers around the table to identify insects and put £1 for every hectare they own in the #farmercluster kitty.
Humour within honesty abounded in refreshing doses. Which helped us to learn what went wrong, as much as what went right. Not every one knew who their Natural England adviser was, where to find the nearest cluster (see website here). Heidi Smith, FWAG facilitator, told us that farmers tend to only hear it from other farmers.
That’s if they actually talk to each other. As Andrew Paul reported from Suffolk, some shook hands for the first time over a meeting convened under the eye of respected ‘farmer’ chair or facilitator. In a ‘safe space’ – warmed either by a kitchen Aga kitchen, pint in a pub or walk in a field.
Many spoke about harder to access uplands, far from the range of Breeding Bird Survey recorders. Data recording is important. Huge tranches of temperate soggy uplands in Nidderdale were receiving attention from groups of land managers. A term I prefer, as it includes those managing woodland and wild areas, bringing gamekeepers in from the cold of culling crows to the warm fold of counting linnets.
‘To do, not to do’
‘Farmers have had enough of being told what not to do‘ Tara Challoner, a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust facilitator, told us bluntly. Farmer groups are a way of bringing joy back into conservation by choosing and listening to experts: forging ideas together and producing data for the ogre* holding Defra’s purse strings (*The Treasury).
Some of the mainstream media at the event were after titillating stuff on predators to pique their readers’ interest. But this fresh idea is all about land managers (aka people managers) sharing experiences, airing concerns, and working quietly on adventurous new ways forward for wildlife conservation.
Addendum Result of 600 votes polled on how to best deliver wildlife
Update July 2020 – feed into ELM consultation by 31 July 2020 (closed)
Update Sept 2021 – New facilitator funding opens Dec 2021. (Informal feedback: ‘keep red tape at bay and ensure RPA pay on time’)
Update Jan 2022 – new ELM funding for local nature recovery and landscape recovery